Controversial 'School of the Americas' Closes

ByBarbara Starr

Dec. 15, 2000 -- A U.S. army facility critics have labeled a school for dictators, torturers and assassins is being closed today.

The “School of the Americas,” in Fort Benning, Ga., which has for 54 years operated as a training facility for Latin American military personnel, will shut its doors after facing criticism from human rights groups for years.

The list of graduates from the School of the Americas is a who’s who of Latin American despots. Students have included Manuel Noriega and Omar Torrijos of Panama, Leopoldo Galtieri of Argentina, and Hugo Banzer Suarez of Bolivia.

Other graduates cut a swath through El Salvador during its civil war, being involved in the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, the El Mozote massacre in which 900 peasants were killed, and the 1989 murders of six Jesuit priests.

On Jan. 17, the school will reopen in the same location, to be run by the Defense Department rather than the Army. It will be known as the “Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.”

In an article distributed by the SOA, Army Secretary Louis Caldera said he hoped the move would end years of “acrimonious debate” over the school.

But critics say the military is doing nothing more than changing the name of a school that over the years has won the moniker “School of the Assassins.”

“I am worried that nothing will change,” said Rep. Joe Moakley, D-Mass., who spearheaded the effort in Congress to close the school.

“In one month, the School of the Americas with a new name will reopen in the exact same place, it will train the exact same Latin American soldiers, but I sincerely hope some of its graduates will not go on to commit the exact same horrendous human rights violations,” Moakley said.

The School of Americas Watch activist group, which over the years has staged numerous protests outside its gates, said it would step up its campaign to close the new institute as well.

“It’s like taking a bottle of poison and labeling it penicillin. It’s still deadly,” said the group’s founder, Roy Bourgeois.

Human Rights or Foreign Policy?

The SOA, which began life in Panama, has trained more than 63,000 soldiers from 21 countries.

It has insisted that instilling a respect for human rights and democracy in soldiers from a region traditionally plagued by military rule and repression is a keystone of its training, particularly since the end of the Cold War and the dwindling of leftist insurgencies.

Critics, however, said that in that era human rights considerations took second place to U.S. foreign policy aims.

Ever since the years of civil war in Central America, annual public protests outside the school’s gates and an ongoing campaign have been the focus of public attention for those who have opposed the school.

But SOA commandant Col. Glenn Weidner said the human rights situation in many Latin American countries has “improved dramatically” because of the training and U.S. demands for more accountability from its allies.

“With the end of the Cold War and the resolution of many of the armed conflicts in the region, the challenges in Latin America have changed,” Weidner said, according to the Army News Service.

The Army has always maintained the School of the Americas is nothing more than an education facility. It says it cannot be responsible for those officers who may have attended the school briefly and then gone on to commit human rights abuses in their own countries.

But clearly opposition has had its impact. The House of Representatives decided in May to close the school, after demands from a number of U.S. politicians.

In the fiscal year 2001 defense spending bill recently passed by Congress, the new institute was formally established with what proponents insist will be key changes that will solve past problems.

For example, classes will now focus on topics such as peacekeeping, disaster relief and counterdrug operations rather than classic Cold War training in counterinsurgency. Human rights teaching will be a pillar.

And now that the school will be run by the Defense Department, students can come from outside the military — including Latin American police departments and civilian government agencies.

At least some of these changes were already under way however at the old School of the Americas. So critics and Congress will be watching closely throughout the coming months to see if improvements in the new school are permanent.

Reuters contributed to this report.